A visit to 7-Eleven, the nation’s most recognizable comfort retailer, isn’t an expertise that the majority would describe as aspirational. Influencers don’t flock there seeking the proper selfie second; no stylish, strikingly lit Instagrams of completely organized spreads of scorching canines and Slurpees populate social media. 7-Eleven exists largely to feed individuals who must eat cheaply and rapidly in the event that they wish to eat in any respect.
Numerous phrases have been written about how you can make comfort retailer meals, snuck in between double work shifts or on prolonged street journeys, extra nutritionally virtuous. Skip the sugar-laden sweet aisle and seize a type of unhappy oranges from the cooler, they implore. Keep away from chips and crunch on water-logged celery slices as a substitute. However in these moments of pure, determined starvation, nothing is extra deeply satisfying than greasy, fuel station goodness chased down with an enormous, radioactive inexperienced Slurpee.
However 7-Eleven plans to shed its identification as a junk meals staple. As America’s obsession with wellness and “clear consuming” exhibits no indicators of slowing down, the chain desires to determine how you can change clients’ perceptions that comfort meals doesn’t all the time must be deep-fried or nutritionally sketchy. In early March, the chain debuted its first “lab retailer,” a real-time testing floor for brand new, bougie conveniences, subsequent to a busy Dallas freeway, only a stone’s throw away from a tony Italian market and one of many metropolis’s hottest ramen joints. Exterior, the shop seems to be largely like every other 7-Eleven, with the acquainted signage and fuel pumps — till you discover the large selfie-friendly mural painted by an area artist. Inside, it seems to be loads like a Entire Meals or every other smooth trendy grocer, with pure wooden accents and towers of path combine components bought in bulk.
Not like most different 7-Eleven shops, this outpost affords a spread of scorching and ready meals objects that goes far past the everyday roller-grill scorching canines which were the chain’s bread and butter for many years. Proper subsequent to the curler grill sit heaters stuffed with soups like vegetarian tomato basil and gluten-free chili. Throughout the aisle awaits what press releases name the “higher for you” fridge case, crammed with grab-and-go lunch objects: sandwiches, salads, and plastic bowls crammed with a “seasonal mix” of mushy kiwi, grapes, cantaloupe, strawberries, and a single pineapple spear. Because of the present dominance of the keto pattern, laborious boiled eggs; portion-controlled packets of cured meats; cheeses; and cured meats wrapped round cheeses are ample.
There’s additionally a small restaurant, full with a sit-down cafe and small patio off to the aspect of the shop, arguably the most effective place to search out meals within the place. It’s the primary Dallas outpost of Laredo Taco Firm, a South Texas mainstay that has been promoting serviceable breakfast tacos on freshly made tortillas to working folks for years. Laredo Taco was a part of the Stripes comfort retailer chain, which 7-Eleven acquired in 2018. With that got here Laredo Taco Firm, which has scored reward from Anthony Bourdain.
Within the aisles, this 7-Eleven is stocked with sufficient gluten-free, paleo, vegan, natural, and naturally sweetened choices to feed a whole military of wellness-obsessed snackers, with simply sufficient “regular” meals to resemble a small grocery retailer. A $15 jar of Justin’s Chocolate Hazelnut Butter sits on a shelf subsequent to natural stevia ($9), jars of Bonne Maman preserves ($6), natural safflower oil ($12), and single-serve pouches of brown basmati rice are positioned alongside staples like Velveeta processed cheese ($4), microwaveable Rice-A-Roni cups, and Wolf model chili. Elsewhere, gluten-, dairy-, and egg-free cake balls ($14) share shelf actual property with Hostess chocolate cupcakes ($2).
The natural Slurpee machine.Amy McCarthy/Eater
After which, after all, there may be the Slurpee, each an American icon and an engineering marvel. The fluffy, frozen beverage is a sweet-tooth staple; the lab retailer’s innovation is the natural Slurpee, made with “farm to fountain” flavors like coconut, blood orange, and cucumber from Idaho’s Tractor Beverage Firm, which boasts that its syrups are USDA licensed natural, GMO-free, and “fully” pure. Within the natural Slurpees, buzzy superfoods like celery and turmeric are components within the cucumber taste; allegedly stomach-soothing licorice root provides an additional veneer of well being to the cherry cream taste; the blood orange taste additionally options turmeric, together with black carrot. Not like a lot of the unique flavors, the natural choices aren’t carbonated, which implies they lack the fluffy, clean texture of a typical cherry Slurpee. As an alternative, they’re filled with crunchy ice crystals that all the time appear to search out their technique to probably the most delicate elements of your tooth.
It’s not shocking that even the Slurpee, a lot maligned for its hefty sugar content material and the presence of preservatives like sodium benzoate, is getting the natural therapy. 7-Eleven is a company fascinated with making income, and the natural meals market is at present value upwards of $45 billion. However there’s something deeply unsettling about seeing the Slurpee stripped of its vibrant colours and cloyingly candy flavors. It’s miserable to assume that, sometime, the Slurpee received’t characterize a decadently candy deal with, however simply one other technique to get in your every day dose of superfoods. It’s like if all of the milkshakes sooner or later had been Soylent, and each Purple Bull was changed with 7-Eleven’s locally-sourced “Yerbucha,” a mixture of kombucha and yerba mate.
As chief working officer Christopher Tanco stated at a media preview, this lab retailer is “mild years” away from 7-Eleven’s beginnings in Dallas greater than 90 years in the past. It’s a mere two miles away from the Southland Ice Home in Oak Cliff, the place 7-Eleven started as a purveyor of ice, bread, milk, and different family necessities within the 1920s. Initially known as Tote’m and adorned with appropriative totem poles shipped in from Alaska, the chain took on the 7-Eleven moniker within the 1940s, and within the years following, its Large Gulps and Slurpees and Large Chew scorching canines grew to become staples of the American weight-reduction plan.
It’s this weird juxtaposition of the natural and the chemical-laden, the sacred and the profane, that makes 7-Eleven’s “lab retailer” such an enchanting — and disorienting — idea. In making an attempt to please actually everybody — gentrifiers, working-class households, younger professionals, and children on the lookout for after-school snacks — it’s potential that they’re going to alienate everybody. Nobody on a decent funds desires to by accident pay $2 extra for natural tomatoes after they meant to seize a budget ones, and nobody desires to be tempted by the attract of a fast Velveeta and Rotel queso served with fried tortilla chips after they’re attempting to eat “virtuously” and select the gluten-free granola as a substitute. Being guilt-tripped into shopping for fruit and hard-boiled eggs is especially dehumanizing when you possibly can solely afford nachos.
Between its fancy espresso machines that grind beans to order, a dessert bar serving soft-serve gelato and non-fat frozen yogurt, and counters serving kombucha, nitrogen-infused hibiscus tea, and chilly brew made with fair-trade, natural espresso beans, this retailer can be a panic assault in 4 partitions. Whereas searching for greater than an hour, I really longed for an everyday 7-Eleven, one the place the cashiers would undoubtedly take a look at me like a lunatic for asking the place to search out the chilly brew espresso on faucet, a spot the place it’s completely regular to purchase three several types of gummy sweet. If 7-Eleven actually wished to enhance upon its mannequin in a significant means, it might look to its personal shops in Japan: The meals there — sandwiches filled with fluffy egg salad, soba noodles, and onigiri — has earned a cult following as a result of it’s low cost, different, and most significantly, of top of the range.
Within the coming months, 7-Eleven has plans to open at the least 5 of those “lab shops” in numerous locales throughout the nation, together with Washington, D.C. and San Diego, tailoring every to their geographic preferences. Maybe the 7-Elevens in Detroit will finally promote paczki alongside the Vernors Boston Cooler Slurpees particularly created for the area, and people in Philadelphia will develop cheesesteaks to serve alongside their regional Canada Dry Cranberry Ginger Ale-flavored frozen drinks. In keeping with Tanco, the successes from these lab shops will likely be carried out in new, “common” 7-Elevens, and those who have already been constructed will likely be retrofitted to accommodate the frozen yogurt bars and chilly brew faucets in the event that they show standard.
However when this 7-Eleven of the longer term arrives, most of us will notice that 7-Eleven was already excellent because it was. By the top of my time there, all I wished was the consolation of a fizzy Cherry Coke and a bag of pepperoni pizza Combos, not kombucha.
And sure, I might’ve bought all these comfort retailer classics at this “lab retailer,” however not with out the bizarre guilt of figuring out that I must be consuming one thing extra virtuous. If there’s one factor that the pervasive weight-reduction plan tradition on this planet has taught me in my life, it’s that there are few shames larger than being the fats lady shopping for a scorching canine and a few corn chips behind a Lululemon-clad pilates teacher. I desire a 7-Eleven that doesn’t decide me or assume I ought to eat higher, particularly after I’m tequila-drunk at 2 a.m. and in determined want of a rooster bacon ranch taquito.
After leaving the lab retailer, I discovered simply the proper 7-Eleven location — a “regular” 7-Eleven with no kombucha in sight — just a few miles down the road, and purchased a scorching canine and a half-cherry, half-Coke Slurpee. I ate them within the automotive, simply as God meant.
Amy McCarthy is the editor of Eater Dallas and Eater Houston.
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